The Jewish Religious Landscape: Eruvim (2004)

An eruv (“eh-roov”) is a physical structure used to create a perimeter in which observant Jews can carry on the Sabbath, Shabbat. They abound in the United States and throughout the world; a 2002 estimate put the international total at over 200. Many eruvs (eruvim) surround areas with a substantial non-Jewish population, most of whom are not even away that such a structure exists. Though they are physical structures, eruvim are virtually invisible to the untrained eye.

If a city has a sufficiently large Jewish population, there will be multiple eruvim. In the Boston area, for example, there are four. The Greater Boston Eruv, completed in 1993 but since expanded, surrounds major parts of Brookline, Newton, Brighton, and Nonantum. The North Charles Community Eruv, completed in 2002, covers most of Cambridge and about half of Somerville. “Religious Diversity News” has a summary of The Boston Globe’s piece on it in 2001. Congregation Beth Israel of Malden has an eruv for its community, as does Young Israel of Sharon.

Explanation of an Eruv

One of the laws that traditional Jews observe is the prohibition to carry on Shabbat. Specifically, one cannot transfer an object from private domain, reshut hayachid, to public domain, reshut harabim, and within public domain, one cannot carry an object more that 4 amot (about 6 – 8 feet). The prohibition is derived from Exodus 36:6: “So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp: ‘No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.’ So the people were restrained from bringing.” So enthusiastic was the Israelites’ support for the building of the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, in the desert that Moses had to ask them to stop.

All of the Shabbat prohibitions are derived from work related to the Tabernacle. In this instance, the Talmud (Shabbat 96b) explains that because the announcement not to bring was made on Shabbat, another reason for it was to introduce the prohibition of carrying. Granted, carrying hardly seems like real work. Some early commentators, such as Tosafot, have even labeled it “inferior work” (Shabbat 2a), and it is one of the Shabbat laws that does not apply to holidays, yom tov, such as Passover. However, the law is no casual matter. The prohibition applies to objects as small as keys and tissues, and encompasses rolling objects such as wheelchairs and strollers. It causes a huge amount of inconvenience for those who follow it. No wonder an entire third of the Talmud’s tractate Shabbat is devoted to laws associated with it.

Fortunately, some respite can be obtained. The Talmud outlines a series of laws for the formation of an eruv. Eruv, literally mixture, is a series of boundaries that encompass an area to mark it as a private domain, thereby making carrying permissible within them. Boundaries can include fences, buildings, walls, rivers, even hillsides. Thus, a small island could be said to be an eruv, as could a gated neighborhood.

In areas where existing structures can’t be used, an eruv is physically constructed. Pieces of string or non-conductive wire are suspended from the very tops of posts to form an outer perimeter. There are minimum and maximum lengths for the posts, how far they can be from one another, how high from the ground they can begin, etc., all related to keeping the eruv visible, if not noticeable. Often, telephone poles and lampposts are used in an eruv. However, because they are sometimes too high, strips of plastic, string, or wood called lechis are attached to the pole, from the ground to just below the wire. These simulate the required posts of an appropriate length. Eruvim can cost upwards of $50,000 to construct, and $10,000 annually to maintain.

Concerns Regarding the Eruv

The laws of eruvim are very complex, and there are several different types (for example, one type of eruv establishes a person’s home for purposes of travel on Shabbat). Many things can go wrong. For example, if even a single piece of string is broken in the eruv, the entire thing becomes unkosher until it is fixed. Thus, every Thursday or Friday, communities send out eruv checkers to walk the length of the eruv and ensure that everything is in order. If not, no one can carry for that Shabbat.

Similarly, in order for an eruv to be kosher, it must encompass an area that less than 600,000 people (the population of Israel at the Exodus) traverse daily. Such a condition is extremely hard to ascertain, since it is unclear whether people in cars or buses are included in the number. As a result, an eruv that one group may regard as kosher will be rejected by another. “Religious Diversity News” has an account of a neighborhood in New York where differences of opinion turned violent.

Another concern with an eruv is that one must obtain a kinyan kesef, a document of permission from all areas within the eruv. In 2000, the Orthodox community of Tenafly New Jersey constructed an eruv with the permission of the utility and cable companies involved, as well as the county, but not the borough council. Soon after its completion, the council ordered the eruv taken down.

The reasons for the council’s decision are not clear. Some feel it is an issue of separation of church and state, since the eruv uses government sponsored poles to construct it. Others say the council was worried about the influx of Orthodox the eruv would bring, which would contribute to worse public schools and a lower general standard of living.

The Tenafly Eruv Association, who brought suit against the borough, claimed the above arguments were mistaken, that freedom of religion demanded that they receive permission to construct the eruv, and that opposition was an expression of anti-Semitism in general and anti-Orthodoxy in particular. The latter is most manifest in the negative reaction to the eruv of many non-Orthodox Jews.

The case made national news, not just because of the panoply of legal rights involved, but also because of the ADL, AJC, OU, and a slew of other national organizations’ support of the Tenafly Eruv Association. A series of articles on the developments can be viewed in “Religious Diversity News.” While the district court ruled in favor of the borough, an appeal to the Third Circuit reversed the decision. When the borough tried to bring the case before the Supreme Court, it was refused. The eruv remains; its boundaries can be seen on Kesher Synagogue’s website (click on “Resources”).

Eruvim have become an integral, if overlooked, part of the religious landscape of the country. Though they have no other use except for Shabbat, they can determine whether a Jewish community will grow or whether its members will move away, and to where. They also create a physical reminder of observant Jews’ need to separate themselves, however subtly, from their surrounding environment. Though eruvim have been around for over 1500 years, only recently has their potential to “ghettoize” a neighborhood caused concern in the non-Jewish community. The results of this realization remain to be seen.